It seems now as if light years have passed since the New Jersey Republican Party joined the campaign of former President Donald Trump in a lawsuit seeking to halt widespread mail-in voting in the 2020 election.
The GOP called Gov. Phil Murphy's executive order to send every New Jersey a mail-in ballot a "recipe for disaster."
But acceptance has replaced the outrage and the recipe for disaster has become a target of sensible bipartisan reform, a much-needed fine tuning of the process.
Lawmakers from both parties recently introduced measures that permit the counting of mail-in and early, in-person voting before the polls close on Election Day.
Last week, state Sen. Troy Singleton, D-Burlington, proposed allowing county election boards to begin tallying vote-by-mail ballots 10 days before Election Day. His measure would also allow officials to start canvassing early, in-person votes at 6 p.m. the day before Election Day. New Jersey launched early voting for the first time this fall.
Singleton's measure comes on the heels of a similar bill introduced by Assemblyman Christopher DePhillips, R-Bergen, which would allow county election board officials to begin counting ballots as soon as they receive them.
"By allowing county board of elections to begin processing early votes and VBMs before Election Day, we hope to restore timeliness and confidence in the process, while maintaining and upholding election integrity,'' Singleton said in a statement.
Chaos after Election Day
The reforms come in response to complaints by officials in both parties this year, when officials didn't begin tabulating the mail-in ballots on Election Day and early, in-person ballots until 8 p.m.
The Election Day start time for counting caused long delays in results, and gave rise to fraud and conspiracy crackling on the web and social media, especially after candidates who saw their early leads from in-person Election Day voting evaporate as the counting of mail-in ballots began.
Some voters went to bed believing their candidate won only to see them trailing the next day. The confusion and delay was best illustrated in the governor's race, when Murphy ended Election Night narrowly trailing Republican challenger Jack Ciattarelli. Murphy regained the lead the next day on the strength of mail-in ballots, and declared victory by evening.
Still, Ciattarelli refused to concede, arguing that all votes should be counted, including some 70,000 provisional votes that could not be tallied until the mail-in votes had been tabulated.
He also posted a video urging supporters not to belief the unsubstantiated rumors and conspiracy theories floating in the ether. Ciattarelli finally conceded on Nov. 12, nine days after Murphy declared victory.
Pandemic upends the process
The disarray over mail-in voting is another byproduct of the pandemic. In the years leading up to the crisis, only a small slice of the electorate sent their ballots in by mail.
But as a move to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, Murphy issued his executive order while leaving the option open for some in-person voting.
To accommodate the unprecedented flood of mailed ballots, county election officials were permitted to begin counting them 10 days before the election. But that was a temporary provision that lapsed.
This year, officials returned to starting counting ballots on Election Day. But that return to the past did not account for the new-found popularity of mail-in voting. This year, some 550,000 mailed ballots were cast, more than doubling pre-pandemic levels in 2019.
Some progressives oppose early counting, fearing that some of preliminary totals will get leaked and open the door for chicanery and get-out-the-vote pressures from county party machines.
Singleton's bill calls for criminal penalties for leaking results before Election Day. DePhillips' bill doesn't call for penalties but he said he would be willing to consider them. He first wants to discuss the matter with county election officials.
"Leaking is a concern. But you know what else is a concern? Elections that drag on upwards of two weeks because the votes take that long to count,'' DePhillips said in an interview. "And talk about conspiracy theories? The longer elections drag out, the more that fuels conspiracy theories."
Reality sets in for GOP
The initial GOP resistance to mail-in balloting stemmed, in large part, from Trump's conspiratorial and reckless warnings that mail-in balloting was an instrument of fraud deployed by Democrats.
And that suspicion within the GOP base carried over into the fall election. At one point in the campaign, Ciattarelli was prompted to reassure voters that mail-in voting was secure, according to Micah Rasmussen, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University.
"They're hear to stay,'' Ciattarelli said of mail-in ballots during a press conference announcing his concession.
The GOP, says Rasmussen, is not necessarily thrilled with mail-in balloting, but some officials now realize that since it's going to remain, "we've got to get it right."